“Queen & Slim” puts a timely spin on an old formula – a road movie and romance borne in the ashes of police violence. Concerned with deeper issues, it’s simultaneously a compelling story of an African-American couple getting to know each other in the wake of a crisis, as they undertake a seemingly hopeless quest to escape.
Despite an overt reference (joke, really) about the two being “the black Bonnie & Clyde,” “Thelma & Louise” feels like a more appropriate comparison, to the extent that two people (“Get Out’s” Daniel Kaluuya, and a fellow Brit in newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) are joined by an out-of-control situation, then forced to go on the run with no real plan regarding what comes next.
That said, director Melina Matsoukas (HBO’s “Insecure,” Beyonce’s “Formation” video) and writer Lena Waithe (“The Chi,” “Master of None”), both working on their first feature-length movie, have managed to create a film that feels bracingly original in its tone. (Waithe shares story credit with “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey.)
Part of that stems from the way the filmmakers balance the movie’s elements – finding humor and tenderness in developing a love story that works backward by throwing them together, while filtering the political weight of their experience through real-world headlines, tragedy and pain.
The protagonists are, in fact, finishing up a somewhat-awkward first date – having met online – when their worlds are abruptly shattered by a traffic stop that quickly escalates thanks to the trigger-happy cop into a fatal encounter.
“I’m not a criminal,” the guy (the nicknamed “Slim” of the title) says, still shocked in the immediate aftermath, to which she replies, “You are now.”
The opening sequence is key, in hindsight, since the uncomfortable banter of a first date so quickly turns to dread, and then chaos. Their relationship thus unfolds under the kind of extreme circumstances that cause understandable exasperation at first – as they careen from one perilous moment to the next – while the intensity of their ordeal gradually forges a bond between them.
“Queen & Slim” does incorporate one very modern wrinkle, with the dash-cam video of the event going viral, transforming the pair into reluctant folk heroes. Given the trauma they’re dealing with, that becomes a rather meta commentary, while complicating their attempt to fly under the radar.
Along the way they meet and receive help from an assortment of characters, perhaps foremost among them her uncle (Bokeem Woodbine). The episodic nature of that produces a few stumbles – including a strained aspect of Queen’s backstory – but not enough to knock the narrative off course.
As in “Get Out,” Kaluuya is outstanding at conveying a great deal in a role that spoons out small character details. Turner-Smith comes off less well at first, but her performance becomes steadier and deepens as the movie builds toward the end.
“Queen & Slim” is one of those increasingly rare movies that should leave audiences discussing it after they exit the theater. Yet if the film derives power from its broader context, there’s strength in the journey as well as the destination.
“Queen & Slim” premieres Nov. 27 in the US. It’s rated R.